Stingless bee honey found to contain high levels of healthy sugar

September 1, 2021
Stingless bee honey

A type of healthy sugar known as trehalulose is only produced in the gut of stingless bees, found throughout tropical and subtropical parts of the world, the evidence of which was discovered by researchers at the University of Queensland (UQ), Australia. Native Australian plants have nectar high in sucrose – it is believed stingless bees feeding from these plants will naturally produce honey rich in trehalulose.

Natural honey contains a complex range of phytochemicals from nectar, which is known to be vitally important for brood rearing and the expansion of the colony population, said UQ organic chemist Dr. Natasha Hungerford.

Read also: Scientists use honey in surgical meshes to fight post-op infection

Unlike the larger, European honeybees (Apis mellifera) which produce significantly more honey, and are the world’s major honey production species, stingless bee honey is a highly prized specialty food. It is noted in Indigenous cultures for its medicinal properties and attracts a high price.

The origin of trehalulose, however, has always been a puzzle since its discovery in stingless bee honey: “We did not know if the trehalulose was coming from an external source — perhaps from native flora [or] something in the resin from trees that stingless bees collect and take home to their nest — because unlike European honey bees, which store their honey in honeycomb made only from beeswax, stingless bees store their honey in small pots made from a mix of beeswax and tree resins.”

“Trehalulose is more slowly digested and there is not the sudden spike in blood glucose that you get from other sugars.” This knowledge prompted Dr. Hungerford and colleagues at UQ to study if the trehalulose content in stingless bee honey could be increased, potentially making stingless bee honey more valuable.

“We fed confined colonies of the Australian stingless bee Tetragonula carbonaria the most common sugars found in flower nectar — sucrose, glucose and fructose [and] found that stingless bees have a unique capacity to convert sucrose to trehalulose and produce honey rich in trehalulose in their gut.”

In addition, stingless bees fed a solution containing table sugar could convert it into a ‘honey’ containing high levels of trehalulose. While the trehalulose-rich syrup that is produced might be considered a potential secondary product of stingless bees, it is not honey, cautioned Dr. Hungerford.

“It is also not good for the health of the hive to feed the bees only table sugar.”

The UQ team will now work to identify different horticultural crops that have nectar high in sucrose such as macadamia, lychee, and avocado, and determine whether stingless bee pollination of these crops could result in a high level of trehalulose in their honey.

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